GET REAL: Rastafari lessons
WE OWE a lot to Rastafari as a pioneering movement in the Caribbean. Several concepts that are now well accepted were integral to Rasta livity long before they started trending. Rastas used to be called crazy for ideas which we now call good sense. A focus on agriculture, the wisdom of a plant-based diet, the importance of African culture and heritage, the wearing of natural hair and the practical benefits of marijuana are some of the once rejected ideas of Rastafari which have now become popular in wider society.
These ideas are not original nor unique to Rasta, but in this region Rasta has contributed greatly to giving them prominence. The response to these ideas was once very aggressive and militant. Rastas used to be hunted down, beaten and thrown in jail for the audacity to live a lifestyle that ran contrary to the norms of a post-colonial society.
As is often the case, these ideas were not fully appreciated when presented in an Afro-Caribbean package. They had to be repackaged and reintroduced via North American and European institutions in order to receive greater consideration.
When Rastas emerged the response was to demonise them and then try to exorcise them from society. There are Rastafari alive who remember being arrested, locked up without charge and having their locks forcibly cut by the police. And a society which did not understand them, because it did not fully understand its self, largely supported this treatment.
Attempts at oppression or suppression will most likely lead to a backlash. Our inability to deal with Rasta in a civilised manner forced it underground, where one of its most seductive features, the use of marijuana, caught on like wildfire and spread like bush. Now, what was once reserved for medicinal, ceremonial and sacramental use has become popular for recreational and secular abuse.
The irony is this. North America, which was a major force behind the demonisation and criminalisation of marijuana, is maturing in its approach to become one of the pioneers in marijuana’s decriminalisation, liberalisation and commercialisation. And we are still locking up citizens for five bags. While the world is busy trying to harness the herb as a treatment for cancer, our authorities are still not sure whether the weed is of any use.
But there are signs that the people of Barbados at least, have grown and matured and our minds have opened after 50 years of independence. Case in point; the recent arrest of Rastafari parents arrested for not sending their children to school. It has not riled up the tin of canned condemnation which it may have years ago. The prejudice against Rasta is not as virulent as it used to be.
Almost every Bajan has a Rasta family member, friend or acquaintance. You at least like Bob Marley. You know that the growing of dreadlocks, the smoking of ganja, and the praise of Haile Selassie it does not mean a person is bad. Not only that, on some level you have a sense that these people we call Rasta have always had something to teach us if only we had the heart to listen.
Most of the comments I have come across with regards to the above-mentioned story have been carefully curious and have avoided passing judgement. Of course there are a few who scoff at the choice of the parents to not send their children to school, but for the most part it seems we are understanding, even sympathetic.
Maybe it is our present day familiarity and comfort with the Rastafari movement that has caused the response to be as moderate and measured as it has. Maybe it is because home schooling is a concept we are more open to because it is a growing trend in North America. Or maybe it is because we can relate to the apprehension about sending children to a school in an environment which seems to be failing so many. The newspaper reported that the children, 9 and 12, are able to read the Psalms. Maybe Barbadians are aware that some students pass right through the Government educational system and leave at 16 years old, barely able to read Ladybird books.
Rasta has always advocated the ideal of growing your own food, making your own clothes and building your own shelter. Add to that educating your own children. As with all other human endeavours, there is a gap between Rasta ideals and their implementation in reality. But this does not mean that the idea is a bad one or not worth considering.
Bajans often criticise Bajans for being too dependent on government and having a sense of entitlement. This may change. The Rasta ideal of self-reliance, like many of their others, may go mainstream as Government services seem to become less reliable.
Is our educational system performing better that our water, sanitation and legal systems? That is a debate even among Members of Parliament. While they look to shift around blame and apparently dodge responsibility, the people must innovate and find a way for themselves. Though not perfectly, Rasta has always sought to do that. Once again we may be induced to consider elements of Rasta livity.
Hopefully this time, and it seems so, we will be less judgemental and more open to learning from novel responses within our own community.
Adrian Green is a creative communications specialist. Email: [email protected]